Television series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.”

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Truman Capote Cashed In on His Friends’ Secrets. It Cost Him Everything.

The rarefied social circle that embraced Capote, and eventually banished him, is up for re-evaluation in the new television series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.”

A black-and-white archival photo shows Truman Capote wearing a long overcoat and smiling slightly, standing between Gloria Guinness and Babe Paley, who are both wearing long gowns and coats and holding handbags.
Truman Capote traded his wit and company for a welcome into high society and the friendship of wealthy women like Gloria Guinness, left, and Babe Paley. Then he betrayed them.Credit...ullstein bild, via Getty Images

Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column, a weekly commentary on the politics, culture and life of New York City.

In 1979, five years before he died and four years after his exile from the Upper East Side’s social cockpit, Truman Capote appeared on a talk show as a friend of the common man. The host, David Susskind, remained unpersuaded. “You are always on people’s yachts” and in “great mansions on Long Island,” he pointed out. “The thing in Spain with the Pamplona bull runs.” Come on.

Capote gave up, reverting to a defense of his affection for the moneyed class. It had come to define him as much as his written work, the output of which had notoriously stalled after the publication of “In Cold Blood” in 1966. “I like rich people,” Capote said, “because they aren’t always trying to borrow something from me.”

The joke sprang from the underbrush, inadvertently poignant. If Capote was not on loan, he was there — at the most rarefied parties and dining halls, as the favored guest at Cap Ferrat — to be bartered. The terms of the exchange were relatively simple: his wit and company, his brocaded stories and dazzlingly foul mouth, traded for the devotion of the thin, beautiful, unhappily married women, up and down Fifth Avenue, who were still wearing white gloves past Stonewall and Woodstock, past Watergate and the fall of Saigon.

This world and the writer’s place in it has come up for re-evaluation with the arrival of “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” an eight-part television series on FX. The impressive cast includes Naomi Watts, Demi Moore and Diane Lane as women who contained their subversions to bed, sleeping with men who were not their husbands, and to lunch with Truman — “Tru” — Manhattan’s most celebrated gay confidant.

Whatever implicit contract existed among them was violated to very unhappy consequence in 1975, with the publication of Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965” in Esquire magazine. A short story that bears almost no adherence to the form, it was meant to exist as a chapter of “Answered Prayers,” the novel that famously went unfinished.

At just under 12,000 words, the story is all chatter, plotless and full of vulgar cruelties. Capote had betrayed his friends who, perhaps naïvely, did not think of themselves as material. And he had done it in service of a piece of literature that in language and sentiment reads like a set of story-meeting notes for an episode of “As the World Turns.”

Those closest to him were the angriest — Babe Paley, the wife of the CBS chairman William Paley, and the former model Slim Keith, whose identities were barely concealed. Some women, like Gloria Vanderbilt, were named outright. Esquire paid Capote $25,000 for the story, but the cost to him was incalculable, beginning with his expulsion from a world he seemed to value above all others and ending with a descent into the drug and alcohol addiction that took his life at the age of 59.

“His talent was his friend,” as Norman Mailer put it at the time. “His achievement was his social life.”

There is a challenge to watching “Feud” from the vantage of a culture in which exposure is in such blood-sport demand, in which billionaires come at you on social media with book-length accounts of their narcissistic wounds. It is the work of understanding how valuable discretion remained to a certain group of people in New York in the middle of the 1970s, as the city and country were unraveling. What might seem like virtue can also read as oblivious self-regard.

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